Giving gladly

"Trees laden with fruits bend down so that people may pluck and enjoy the fruits. Clouds laden with water come down in the form of rain, cooling the earth and watering plants and trees. In the same way, noble men do not become conceited when fortune embraces them but use their wealth to help others." These beautiful lines (originally Sanskrit), by the poet Kalidasa, were penned over 1,500 years ago.

Several centuries later, an American multimillionaire embodied the spirit of beneficence that Kalidasa endorsed. Andrew Carnegie, a successful steel magnate, donated liberally to deserving causes, retaining only a fraction of his enormous wealth for his personal use. "I should consider it a disgrace to die a rich man," declared the philanthropist.

A story from Roman mythology makes it clear that generosity is not the prerogative of the affluent. Philemon and his wife Baucis were poor, but readily shared their limited resources with those in need. On one occasion, sacrificing their own supper, they set a frugal meal before two ragged travellers. Surprisingly, the food and wine proved more than sufficient for all four at the table.

The guests, who were Jupiter (King of the gods) and his messenger Mercury, thanked Philemon and Baucis and bestowed on them peace and prosperity. They also granted the elderly couple's wish that they should die together and never be separated. Philemon and Baucis were turned into trees, with branches entwined.

Whether or not caring for our fellow human beings earns us material or other rewards, we cannot ignore distress and deprivation at our doorstep. Even if it is not always possible to render much financial assistance, we should never be so smugly satisfied with our own wellbeing that we are callously indifferent to the plight of the underprivileged.

"This is the meaning of true love, to give until it hurts," said Mother Teresa, who went on to acquire the status of sainthood. She understood the biblical precept that it is "more blessed to give than to receive".

In the words of an old Chinese proverb: "A wise man does not lay up treasures," for he is aware of the remarkable paradox that "the more he gives the more he has."

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